Who Were the Anabaptists?
FIRST-TIME visitors to the city center of Münster in Westphalia, Germany, invariably stop to gaze at three iron cages that hang from a church tower. Except for a few short intervals, the cages have been there for nearly 500 years. They originally held the bodies of three men who had been publicly tortured and executed. The men were Anabaptists, and the cages are relics of their kingdom.
Who were the Anabaptists? How did the movement get started? What were its main teachings? Why were the men executed? And what connection do the three cages have with a kingdom?
Reform the Church—But How?
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and the clergy grew. Corruption and immorality permeated the church; hence, many felt that vast changes were needed. In 1517, Martin Luther publicly called for reform, and as others joined the debate, the Protestant Reformation was soon under way.
But the reformers had no uniform strategy as to what ought to be done or how far the changes ought to go. Many recognized the need for adhering to the Bible in matters of worship. Yet, the reformers could not even agree on a common interpretation of Bible teachings. Some felt that the Reformation was progressing too slowly. And it was among these reformers that the Anabaptist movement formed its roots.
“Strictly speaking, there was not one baptist movement; there were several,” writes Hans-Jürgen Goertz in his book Die Täufer—Geschichte und Deutung. For instance, in 1521 four men known as the Zwickau prophets caused a stir by preaching Anabaptist teachings in Wittenberg. And in 1525 a separate group of Anabaptists was founded in Zurich, Switzerland. Anabaptist communities also started in Moravia—now the Czech Republic—and in the Netherlands.
Baptism—For Children or for Adults?
Anabaptist communities were mostly small, and members generally behaved peaceably. The adherents made no secret of their beliefs; in fact, they preached to others. The basic tenets of the Anabaptist faith were defined in the Schleitheim Confession in 1527. Among other things, they refused to bear arms, kept separate from the world, and excommunicated wrongdoers. But what characterized their faith more than anything else, clearly distinguishing Anabaptists from other religions, was the conviction that baptism was for adults and not for children.a
Adult baptism was not simply a question of religious dogma; it was an issue of power. If baptism was delayed until adulthood—thus allowing a person to make a decision based on faith—some might not get baptized at all. And individuals not baptized would, at least to a degree, remain outside the control of the church. For some churches, adult baptism meant a loss of power.
Hence, Catholics and Lutherans alike wanted to discourage the practice of adult baptism. After 1529, at least in some areas, those who performed adult baptism or who were baptized as adults were liable to receive the death penalty. Journalist Thomas Seifert explains that Anabaptists were “bitterly persecuted throughout the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” Persecution reached its climax in Münster.
Medieval Münster Seeks Change
Medieval Münster had about 10,000 inhabitants and was enclosed by an almost impregnable system of defenses, about 300 feet [90 m] wide and some 3 miles [5 km] in circumference. The situation inside the city, however, was far less stable than its defenses. The Kingdom of the Anabaptists, published by the City Museum of Münster, mentions “inner political disputes between the City’s Aldermen and the Guilds.” Furthermore, residents were indignant at the behavior of the clergy. Münster embraced the Reformation and in 1533 changed from a Catholic to a Lutheran city.
One of the foremost reformist preachers in Münster was Bernhard Rothmann, a rather impetuous individual. Author Friedrich Oehninger explains that Rothmann’s “views became decidedly Anabaptist; he and other colleagues refused to baptize infants.” He gained popular support in Münster, though his radical views were too extreme for some. “More and more of those who loved the old order left the city, filled with a sense of unease and foreboding. Anabaptists streamed to Münster from all over, hoping to find the realization of their ideals.” This concentration of Anabaptists in Münster led to a horrific episode.
New Jerusalem Under Siege
Two Dutch migrants to Münster—Jan Mathys, a baker from Haarlem, and Jan Beuckelson, known as John of Leiden—were to play a decisive role in developments there. Mathys claimed to be a prophet and announced April 1534 as the time of the second coming of Christ. The city was declared to be the New Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible, and the mood became apocalyptic. Rothmann decided that all property should be owned communally. Adult residents had to make a decision: Get baptized or get out. Mass baptisms included some who got immersed simply to avoid having to leave their home and belongings.
Other communities looked on aghast as Münster became the first city in which Anabaptists were the strongest religious and political force. According to the book Die Täufer zu Münster, this brought “Münster the hostility of the entire Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” A local dignitary, Prince-Bishop Count Franz von Waldeck, gathered an army to lay siege to Münster. That army was made up of both Lutherans and Catholics. These two faiths, which had hitherto stood on opposite sides of the Reformation and would soon be at each other’s throats in the Thirty Years’ War, joined forces against the Anabaptists.
Destruction of the Anabaptist Kingdom
The strength of the besieging army did not impress those protected within the city’s walls. In April 1534, when Christ’s second coming was supposed to occur, Mathys rode out of the city on a white horse, expecting divine protection. Imagine the horror of Mathys’ supporters as they peered over the city wall and saw besieging troops cut Mathys to pieces and raise his head on a stake.
John of Leiden became Mathys’ successor and was named King Jan of the Anabaptists in Münster. He tried to counteract the imbalance between the sexes—the city had many more women than men—by encouraging the men to take as many wives as they saw fit. As to extremes within the Anabaptist kingdom in Münster, adultery and fornication were punishable by death, whereas polygamy was tolerated, even encouraged. King Jan himself took 16 wives. When one of them, Elisabeth Wandscherer, asked his permission to leave the city, she was publicly beheaded.
The siege lasted for 14 months, until June 1535 when the city finally fell. Münster suffered destruction the like of which the city did not see again until World War II. Rothmann escaped, but King Jan and two other leading Anabaptists were captured, tortured, and executed. Their bodies were placed in cages and hoisted up to hang from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church. That was “to serve as a terrifying warning to all potential troublemakers,” explains Seifert. Yes, meddling in politics brought drastic consequences.
What happened to other Anabaptist communities? Persecution continued for several years throughout Europe. The majority of Anabaptists stuck to their pacifist principles, though there was a belligerent minority. In time, the former priest Menno Simons took over leadership of the Anabaptists, and the group eventually came to be known as the Mennonites or by other names.
The Three Cages
The Anabaptists were basically religious people who tried to stick to Bible principles. But radicals in Münster led Anabaptists to abandon that course and get involved in politics. Once that happened, the movement turned into a revolutionary force. This spelled disaster for the Anabaptist movement and for the medieval city of Münster.
Visitors to the city center are still reminded of these horrific events of almost 500 years ago. How? By the three iron cages that hang from the church tower.
a This article does not examine the arguments for or against the baptism of children. For further details on this subject, see the article “Should Babies Be Baptized?” in The Watchtower of March 15, 1986.
[Pictures on page 13]
King Jan was tortured, executed, and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church